Will Verbit Go Public in 2022?

Verbit’s constant attraction of investor money and recent acquisition of VITAC has set off a few optimistic waves in the media. Verbit bills itself as a unicorn, that is, a startup with a valuation of over $1 billion. Court reporters worried about that kind of classification should be aware that it means nothing. Fyre was set to be a unicorn, and yet Billy McFarland’s venture did little more than light Fyre’s investors’ money on fire and land him in jail. Theranos was valuated at $10 billion. It’s now worthless and Elizabeth Holmes may face jailtime. Powa was a unicorn with a valuation of $2 billion. That didn’t work out either.

I was shocked to come across an article that states that there are hopes of Verbit becoming a publicly-traded company by 2022. Ignoring things that the article gets incorrect, such as the firm being Manhattan-based (other articles state it’s an Israeli company), there are few reasons I can see for Verbit to become a publicly-traded company. Becoming publicly traded would allow investors to see the profit or loss. To give a great example, VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts, is publicly traded. It loses money every quarter despite reporting revenue in the millions. Companies that lose money aren’t attractive to investors and that’s why VIQ is about $7 a share today. Remaining private allows companies to continue a kind of “shell game” and operate despite being unprofitable. Based on Livne’s broadcasting of Verbit’s revenue and silence with regard to profit, I suspect Verbit would have the same exact problem, lots of revenue and little or no profit.

Going public would serve only one purpose in my view, an exit for current investors. Current investors could make a big deal about how it’s a company valuated at over $1 billion sitting “on top” of a market that’s allegedly worth $30 billion and watch as new investors dive in and take the bait. In the article above, Livne states the funding rounds were over-subscribed. That means they had a lot of money poured on them in their funding rounds that they did not need. If they’re over-funded, going public clearly wouldn’t provide the company with funds it needs — remember, it’s overfunded — again, it would give the current investors an exit. They get to cash out, some suckers get to buy in, and what happens after that is anybody’s guess. It remains a little strange to me that journalists buy the idea that a company that is maybe half a decade old has automatic speech recognition technology that is better than basically all the major players in the market. Those major players, according to one study, have accuracy levels between 25 and 80 percent.

My prediction is that Verbit will either fail to go public in 2022, or it will go public and take a hard fall sometime down the road after Livne and other investors have cashed out. I sincerely hope it’s the latter, because at least it would be a happy ending for the founder. Verbit finds itself in a precarious position of being a large target for the IRS. In the United States, one is a common law employee when the “employer” has direction and control. Verbit, according to the linked article, is using 30,000 freelancers to carry out its business model. If Verbit does not have direction and control, it cannot assure quality. If it does have direction and control, those are 30,000 employees it is failing to withhold taxes for. Like other companies that rely heavily on independent contractors, Verbit may soon find itself under attack from federal and state tax authorities where it conducts business or earns income. Anyone in the world can confidentially file a form 3949-A that puts Verbit under the spotlight, and that can only translate into headaches for the company and its investors. With that kind of exposure, I would not be investing in the company any time soon.

Even in a world where authorities turn a blind eye and there isn’t a decline in the company’s financial health, Verbit moving public could only give its competitors more information, which is something I’m looking forward to.

Meanwhile, back at Stenonymous HQ, an important meeting with my board of directors.

Gartner: 85% of AI Implementations Will Fail By 2022

A series of 2019 predictions by Gartner were reported on by Venture Beat on June 28, 2021. As explained in a prior post, “AI”, or machine learning, relies on datasets and algorithms. If the data is imperfect or incomplete, a computer has a chance of giving bad output. If the algorithm that tells the computer what to do with the data is imperfect, the computer has a chance of giving bad output. It’s easy to point to anecdotal cases where “AI” makes a bad call. There have been reports of discrimination in facial recognition technology, driverless cars killing people, or Amazon’s algorithm deciding to fire drivers that are doing their job. I’ve seen plenty of data on the failings of overhyped technology and commercial ASR. What I hadn’t seen prior to today was somebody willing to put a number on the percentage of AI solutions that succeed. Today, we have that number, and it’s an abysmal 15%.

Perhaps this will not come as a surprise to my readers, considering prior reports that automatic speech recognition (ASR), an example of machine learning, is only 25 to 80 percent accurate depending on who’s speaking. But it will certainly come as a surprise to investors and companies that are dumping money into these technologies. Now there’s a hard number to consider. And that 15% itself is misleading. It’s a snapshot of the total number of implementations, not just ASR. ASR comprises a percentage of the total number of implementations out there. And it’s so bad that some blogs are starting to claim word error rate isn’t really that important.

Judge,
I know I botched 20 percent of the words.
But word error rate really isn’t that important.

That 15% is also misleading in that it’s talking about solutions that are implemented successfully. It is not talking about implementations that provide a positive return on investment (ROI). So imagine having to go to investors and say “our AI product was implemented with 100% success, but there’s still no money in this.”

The Venture Beat article goes on to describe several ways to make AI implementation a success, and I think it’s worth examining them briefly here.

  1. Customizing a solution for each environment. No doubt that modeling a solution for every single business individually is bound to make that solution more successful, but it’s also going to take more staff and money. This would be almost like every court reporting company having their own personal software development staff to build their own CaseCAT or Eclipse. Why don’t they do that? It’s hopelessly expensive.
  2. Using a robust and scalable platform. The word robust doesn’t really mean anything in this context. Scalability is tied to modular design — the ability to swap out parts of the program that don’t work for specific situations. For this, you need somebody bright and forward thinking. They have to have the capability to design something that can be modified to handle situations they may not even be aware exist. With the average software engineer commanding in the ballpark of $90,000 a year and the best of them making over $1 million a year, it’s hopelessly expensive.
  3. Staying on course once in production. This involves reevaluating and sticking with something that may appear to be dysfunctional. This would be almost like the court reporter coming to the job, botching the transcript, and the client going “yes, I think I’ll use that guy again so that I can get a fuller picture of my operational needs.” It’s a customer service nightmare.
  4. Adding new AI use cases over time. Piggybacking on number 3, who is going to want to continue to use AI solutions to patch what the first solution fails to address? This is basically asking businesspeople to trust that it will all work out while they burn money and spend lots of time putting out the fire. It’s a customer service nightmare.

I really respect Venture Beat trying to keep positive about AI in business, even if it’s a hopelessly expensive customer service nightmare.

With some mirth, I have to point out to those in the field that believe the stenographer shortage is an insurmountable problem that we now know machine learning in the business world has a failure rate that’s right up there with stenographic education’s failure rate. Beyond the potential of exploiting digital reporters or stealing investor money, what makes this path preferable to the one that has worked for the last hundred years? As I wrote a week ago, the competition is going to wise up. Stenographic court reporters are the sustainable business model in this field, and to continue to pretend otherwise is nothing short of fraud.

Can Freelancers Apply For Workers Compensation Benefits? (NY)

There are a lot of professionals in this field who will laugh at the notion that freelancers can be entitled to employee benefits. “Of course we’re not eligible for Workers Compensation! We’re independent contractors!” The idea does seem as preposterous and fanciful as a soul-devouring stenotype.

Souls purchased separately.

To give a brief overview, in New York, to avoid clogging the court system with employee accident cases, Workers Compensation coverage allows employees injured on the job to apply for benefits to cover their medical expenses and/or wages. To many, this would be where the discussion ends. If you’re not an employee, you can’t get benefits. But when we look into exactly what constitutes an employee, and the way this actually works, we find that the answer is more likely “it depends.” Administrative and judicial judges will look at several factors to determine whether someone is an “employee” or an “independent contractor” under the law, and how the “hiring entity” and the “hired entity” classify the relationship is not a major factor listed on their website.

  1. The right to control. Does the hiring entity or employer control the manner in which the work is done? In stenographic freelance circles, and particularly in New York, this can be a mixed bag. They might ask you to use a specific layout, arrive at a specific time, or even bring snacks to a depo. There are varying degrees of control, and if your agency is exercising a lot of control over you, you just might be an employee.
Text from the WCB site.

2. Character of work. If the primary work performed by the hiring entity is performed by the hired entity, that means the hired entity is an employee. Again, this is something you can probably argue both ways in stenographic circles. You can easily make the claim that court reporting agencies are in the business of providing court reporting services and therefore we should be employees. You can also make the argument that court reporting corporations are not in the business of court reporting, but rather acquiring court reporting professionals for lawyers. Just to note, US Legal tried that in an Unfair Competition case in California during the Holly Moose case. It argued that it was not a shorthand reporting corporation. Justice Elia rejected that, stating “such circular reasoning reasoning to evade…” [this state’s laws] “…is, at a minimum, unpersuasive.” Who can say what a judge in New York might say when applying the facts of a case to New York law?

Text from the WCB site.

3. Method of payment. The important bit here is that whether you receive a 1099 or W2 does not matter in determining an employee/employer relationship. Whether you receive regular payments or whether you are paid for a task as a whole is a deciding factor. Again, it can easily be argued either way dependent on the facts of a freelancer’s “employment,” are they taking jobs regularly and getting regular payments? Are they hired for a one-off assignment?

Text from the WCB site.

4. Furnishing equipment. The vast majority of us maintain our own equipment, and if a workers comp claim were ever made against an agency, I imagine the first thing they would do is bring out that fact. But there are other things to consider. Does the agency supply you with business cards or other materials that you’re supposed to hand out? Some do, some don’t, and that makes this a factor worth considering.

Text from WCB.

5. Right to hire/fire. This relates to the right to hire and fire who’s doing the work. For example, when an agency contracts you, a true independent contractor would have full authority to contract that out to someone else. In my time freelancing, I saw worksheets that forbade such behavior. Ultimately, the right to hire and fire is dominated by the agencies, and this makes a good case, on this factor, for reporters as employees.

Text from WCB.

6. Postmates Decision. Court reporters were doing the gig economy before it was popular. Now many states are grappling with how to treat these cases where someone may be called an independent contractor but meets all the definitions of a common law employee. In New York, we had the Postmates decision. That looked at several of these factors including the character of the work, right to control, and the method of payment. Another thing looked at was who controlled the customer and whether the independent contractor was able to go out and build his own customer base. This is something that court reporters are split on. Many of us have our own clients and many of us work exclusively through agencies. The Postmates decision gives us a look at how administrative judges and appellate courts might look at these kinds of issues in New York. If you don’t have any control or interaction with the client beyond the work you’re doing, a court could look at that and say “employee.”

Taking in all the factors above, as intelligent people not trained in law, we can see how we might argue it both ways. We can see that it’s very clear that the law doesn’t care much how the employer and employee classify the relationship. We can see what’s happened in this state and other states, and we can come to an interesting conclusion. Can freelancers claim Workers Comp benefits? It depends. Can the claimant show that they meet the definitions of a common law employee? I can’t answer that for you. But I can say that if you’re someone who’s injured on the job and meets these eligibility factors, it may just be worth consulting an attorney to give you real advice on your specific situation and the facts of your specific case. Independent contractors, on the other hand, generally may, but are not required to, purchase Workers Compensation insurance. This can be done to guard against medical bills or fulfill the terms of a contract.

Finally, as someone who briefly owned a corporation, I can tell agency owners to make sure you have a rider or option on your Workers Compensation insurance that covers you if an independent contractor claims they’re an employee. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have a misclassified employee without coverage. It can constitute a crime to fail to follow our Workers Comp law. You can try searching other reporting firms and see what insurer they use. You can also engage with NYSIF to see if they offer a better rate than your current provider. Whatever you do, just be aware that this is a possibility, and the more your freelancers fit into those eligibility factors, the more this could end up a problem for you. I don’t want a problem for you. Chances are good an injured reporter doesn’t want a problem for you. But if somebody’s hurt, can’t work, and the medical bills are piling up, chances are good they’re going to take whatever avenue they’ve got to take to survive. The least we can do is keep this open for discussion.

Common Scams

I read and learn about scams frequently. The terrible thing about a great scam is that it’s adaptable to almost any market or format. Court reporting’s a got a wide range of people in it, from technological masterminds to the folks that only deal with the bare minimum that they need to know to do their job. This’ll be mostly for the latter! Here are a few common scams you may run across.

  1. The check cashing scam. In American payments and banking, many of us still use checks. Always know where your check is coming from and get your guard up if the check is in the wrong amount. To very quickly run through this scam, someone will send you a check, usually “overpay” by hundreds or thousands of dollars, and then ask for some money back. In our banking system, the bank must release the money to you in one or two days, so most people look at their account and believe the check has cleared. So let’s say you get a $1,000 check. You deposit it and the bank lets you withdraw this instantly. The payer says “whoops, I overpaid, please wire me back $500.” No problem. You send the $500. It can take several weeks for the bank to discover the check is fraudulent. When they do, they deduct $1,000 from your account, and probably add a bounced check fee. So now you have an account that is negative $500, and you’re on the hook for it! This is not like credit theft where the bank must reimburse theft that isn’t your fault, and thousands upon thousands of dollars are lost through this common scam. For court reporters that deal with checks, you are a huge target for this scam.
  2. The infected computer scam. All of a sudden your computer locks up or starts making noise. “Alert. Alert. Your computer is infected. Call Microsoft immediately.” The way this scam goes is someone has gotten a piece of malware on your computer OR they have tricked you into thinking that there is malware on your computer through a popup. Their goal is to get you to call the number and pay them some money to “fix” your computer. The major problem with this is that they are not Microsoft. They usually get you to give them access to your PC through remote PC services, and once they have that kind of access they may steal more information, mess up your PC more, or fix your problem. You’re basically at their mercy. To avoid that, your best bet is usually to NOT CALL, save your work, close all the windows on the computer, and try to restart the computer. CTRL + ALT + DELETE can help you bring up the task manager window on most Windows computers. You can view all the “processes” running on your computer. There’s a lot of stuff there you won’t recognize. In my experience, viruses are usually poorly named, like bwejrj.exe. Once you get the “bad” process done, you can go to the “startup” tab, find it, and disable it there to make sure it doesn’t start when Windows starts. Once the virus is disabled in this manner, you can generally run your antivirus and your computer without worrying too much about it. If it’s not running and never set to run, it’s like it doesn’t exist. On older computers, you should use your search bar to find “msconfig.exe.” This is where the startup tab is on older computers. If you’re not good with computers and you’re using msconfig.exe, only use the “services” and “startup” tab. Don’t touch the other tabs. A family member once had a virus that closed all windows on the computer. By opening the task manager and tapping the delete key, I was able to kill the process (even though it kept closing task manager.) I’m firmly convinced that most malware is programmed poorly and that this trick will help you out. It’s much better than giving your money away to scammers. I’ll leave some screenshots for people that need to visualize it. Our computers are really important for our work, so having this basic knowledge up your sleeve is good.
  3. The fake program scam. This is something we are seeing in gaming, and it’s probably only a matter of time before some scammer tries it on our software. Generally, these types of scams have to do with promising you that an application that is not made for your phone can be run on your phone, or unlocking some special feature in your software. So imagine a world where somebody comes out and says you can get CAT on your phone or you can unlock this super special feature if you just answer some survey questions. Wow! CAT software is so expensive and this feature sounds great. They might even send you a video of them doing it! Generally, the video is faked. What they are trying to do is get you to answer surveys or give up personal information so that they can sell that. Your time is wasted, they make money off your time, and you get nothing. If you’re really not sure, contact your manufacturer. Even if their logo is terrible, the chance they’re helping your scammer is basically nothing.
  4. Gift cards and email scams. To break this one down, I’m going to explain that there are programs that “crawl” the internet looking for e-mails. Once they find an e-mail, automated messages can be sent out by the thousands from thousands of different e-mail addresses. So, for example, when you have something like the NCRA or NYSCRA board, our e-mails are public. We want members to have our e-mails. We want reporters in our state or field to be able to contact us. That’s just how it goes. We can try to put the [at] instead of the @ in our e-mail to throw off the crawler programs, but at the end of the day, scammers have access to our names. If you post your e-mail address publicly, these programs will similarly have access to your e-mail. You may get a fake e-mail that says it’s from your associations, or your association president. The biggest red flag with this scam is that it asks for money or a gift card. Gift cards are basically untraceable and once you send a gift card code to a scammer, that money’s gone. The best way to shield yourself is to never ever give gift card codes over e-mail. If you want to donate a gift card for an association event, it should be done by mail or in person at sanctioned and publicized events. I can’t stress enough that no volunteer board member is going to be asking you for gift cards over an e-mail with no context or clear reason, so do yourself a favor and hit delete. Please note there are variations of this scam where the scammer tries to tell you your friend or loved one is in prison and needs those gift cards immediately. Don’t let them toy with you. You’re smarter than that.
  5. The subscription or spoof scam. Months ago someone wrote to me and stated “I never signed up for your blog, but I’m getting e-mails from it! Did XYZ Corporation sell my e-mail to you?!” No. This is a different type of scam in that it’s not so much money that’s at stake, but reputation. Someone can go to a subscription site and stick your e-mail in the box. They might be doing this with the intention to harass or annoy you, or they may be doing it with the intention to sour your feelings about the other party by getting you hit with unsolicited e-mails. There’s also a variant of this scam where the party may send you nasty e-mails pretending to be someone else, or post on an internet forum or subreddit pretending to be someone else. They can even use masking or spoofing to make it look like it’s coming from the person’s actual e-mail! So, if you’re getting bombarded by an unwanted subscription, take some time out to look for the unsubscribe link in the e-mail, most honest subscriptions have them. If you have any doubts about the authenticity of an e-mail, instead of replying directly, you can compose a new e-mail to the person. For example, let’s say you get an e-mail tomorrow from ChristopherDay227@gmail.com, but it’s saying horrible, nasty, hateful things. That’s very outside my character unless I’m having a nervous breakdown or deeply emotional moment. If you hit reply, you may send an e-mail back to the scammer who can continue to mess with you in my name. If you compose a brand new e-mail to ChristopherDay227@gmail.com, you’ll get me, at which point I can hopefully clear the whole thing up. Same thing goes for cellphones. Someone can make it look like they’re calling from my number very easily, but they can’t receive my calls without some serious hacking. This kind of thing is prevalent. I use myself as an example here, but it can happen to anyone. They can pretend to be your boss, your union president, your agency. The good news is you can outsmart them pretty easily.

The good news for court reporters is that the average scammer’s livelihood depends on scamming as many people as possible. This often means that scams are not often tailored to our specific profession, and that can help raise red flags and identify scams. That said, knowing reporters who have fallen for these, and knowing we can prevent that, I feel it’s important to speak up and beat back the scammers. Reporters are, on average, getting older, and many of these scammers attempt to prey upon older people who may lead very busy lives and are not able to read about these scams. Many of our recruits are younger people who are often unaware of the myriad ways that people can try to take advantage of them. Divided, it might be easy enough for them to fool one or two people. Together, we can outsmart all of ’em.

Loans, School, & You

A great deal of people ask questions like “should I take out a loan for school?” “Is it better to pay out of pocket?” Everyone’s situation is a little different and everyone has a different motivation for schooling, particularly court reporting or stenography schooling, but maybe if we focus on one thing that is the same, we can help potential students decide what’s best for them.

Loans and interest confuse people. There are hundreds of articles on the topic and lots of ways it’s been explained. Today, there are many people coming out against the unfairness of school loans because they pay, and they pay, and the amount never seems to go down. People have even claimed to have paid $20,000 on a $40,000 debt, and still owed $37,000.

Why does that matter? If you understand this stuff, you can avoid being in that situation and you can help others avoid being in that situation. First we’ll go back to savings loans. If you’re around my age, you probably learned about savings interest and had a cursory lesson in compound interest. If you have $100 in an account and it earns 1% interest, you’ll have $101. That $101 goes on to make $1.01 in interest — and it just keeps adding together and snowballing.

Here’s what most modern education never teaches: Loans are the opposite. The interest keeps building up what you owe if you don’t pay it. Let’s create a fictional loan to understand it. The compound interest is now working against you under a new name, capitalized interest. Let’s say you take out $40,000, and your interest is only a magical $33 a month (about 1 percent a year), and the lender only wants a payment of $100 plus interest. So you’re expected to make monthly payments of $133. Ignoring the fact that it would take a long time to pay off this loan, what happens if you miss a payment? The interest gets added to the principal, or total amount you owe. So now you owe $40,033. Now your interest payments are $33.36! And every time you make a payment that doesn’t cover the interest, the interest gets added to the principal, making the interest even higher, and making the monthly payment even more difficult to meet. In many things in life, trying your best will land you in an okay spot. With loan payments, you’ve either got it or you don’t, and not having it can make your situation worse.

So what does this mean? In a nutshell, if you are not pretty sure that you will be able to meet your minimum monthly payments every single month, it does not ever make sense to take out a loan. Missing just one payment can make repayment even harder and increase the chance of missing future payments. If you’re going to set out on a career in court reporting, don’t be afraid to ask your local association for a mentor, and don’t be afraid to ask a mentor what to expect. Don’t be afraid to make a budget. And do yourself a favor when you do make that budget, include play money. If you know that you go on $400 shopping sprees, you either need to have enough money to do that and make your payments or the self-control to reduce your shopping spree lavishness. Whatever you do: Don’t make less than your minimum payment. Math is math, and it will only cost you more in the long run.

That said, for the thriftiest and smartest borrowers, realize that making above and beyond the minimum payment has the result of reducing future interest payments from what they would be if you made the minimum. You can tear out of debt, pay much less interest, and be well on your way to building up your wealth.

The smartest financial choice is always to be debt free. If you have no debt, you have no interest payments. That means more money in your wallet. Look at school loans another way: The lender is investing in the business of You. You are the CEO of You. And now you’ve got the tools to understand that the CEO’s cut is bigger the faster the lender is paid. No shame in a loan, but only insomuch as it grows the business!

The vTestify Lie

I’ve often worried we too often buy into hype from voice recognition sellers. Dragon represents itself as being 99 percent accurate, but only has about a 3-star rating. Opened up to scrutiny, VR and digital recording companies don’t make the cut.

So we had a company mentioned on Facebook called vTestify. They brag about all the money they can save people on depositions. Just knowing what I’ve reported in the past, other voice recognition companies have raised a lot of money. Verbit raised $20 million. Trint raised something like $160 million. As far as I can tell, vTestify raised $3 million. Either they’re 50 times more efficient than everybody else or they’re woefully underfunded and their investors are set to lose while the company lurches along burning capital. Let that sink in for the next time somebody is trying to sell you the future, investors!

I would’ve left it there, but then another reporter brought up that they have a calculator. The claims there are laughable. They claim that they can save attorneys $3,198 per deposition. I don’t know what reporters in North Carolina are charging, but I know here in New York I could get somewhere around $4.00 a page, and maybe on a great day a $100 appearance fee. A pretty thick day is about 200 pages, only ever getting to that 300 or 400 page count occasionally. So take 200 pages multiplied by 4. 800. Add on that sweet appearance fee, and maybe it comes to 900 bucks. Even real-time reporters only charge a buck or two a hookup, so even with 6 hookups, we’re still only talking maybe a $2,000 day. We can all acknowledge that these glamorous multi-thousand dollar days exist, but the bottom line is that’s not the norm and vTestify isn’t actually saving anybody a dime. Their calculator doesn’t even make any sense. When I added the numbers they gave, I got $3,646. Somehow their calculator comes up with $4,329.

It gets better — or worse — you decide! Then we have this snippet about the court reporter shortage. Using their numbers and assuming it’s totally true, they say there are 23,000 reporters to cover 3 million depositions. What a crisis! Except when you take three million and divide that by 23,000, you get 130 and change. If every reporter took 131 depositions a year, using vTestify’s own numbers, we’d be just fine. There are about 260 weekdays in a year. Succinctly, if every reporter worked half the weekdays in a year, by vTestify’s own argument, there’d be no shortage. Let’s not forget all of the steno-centric initiatives like Open Steno, A to Z, Stenotrain, and Project Steno, that have taken place since the Ducker Report to bring people into this field. Are we really expected to believe there was zero impact and things went exactly as predicted? I don’t, and you shouldn’t either. Let’s put this another way. If the median salary of a reporter is about 57,000, reporters are only taking home, on average, 5,000 a month gross. So how can vTestify be saving anyone 3k or 4k per deposition when the average reporter is only grossing 5k per month? They can’t. But that doesn’t stop them from saying they can.

We have one decision to make in this field. Are we going to get out there and educate the consumer, or are we going to lay down and let these irresponsible companies fake it until they make it? There’s zero compunction with lying to make a buck, and customers need to know. Smart purchasers have already seen through this BS and stuck with stenographers through thick and thin, and they’ve done better for it. Tried, tested, efficient; stenographic reporters are the way to go. Maybe vTestify will figure that out and make the switch themselves!

Remember all this next time you see somebody peddling a similar product. And next time you’re making a sales pitch, ask your buyer what their monthly budget for depositions looks like. If it’s more than $5,000 a month, I have a few numbers above that say they can save a whole lot by switching to stenography.

Shortage Solutions 3: Private Labeling

One shortage concern is a stenographic (stenographers’) aversion to the colloquial big-box companies. Some reporters have reported that even when the company acquiesces and pays proper rates, they don’t want to take it for whatever perceived reasons. The other day I was lucky enough to catch a profound and interesting idea put out there by MA Payonk on her current blog space, Steno Jewels.

To put it in simple terms it’s the age-old idea of private labeling. Example: Imagine all the resellers out there that take Coke, slap their label on it, and sell it away. Perfectly legal, functional, conceptual example of private labeling. You see this all day, every day in probably every store you walk into.

How would this work in steno? Well, if an agency is asking you to cover and they’ve agreed to pay what you want paid, but you have an aversion to building their brand for whatever reason, it’s perfectly sensible and allowable for you to make an agreement with them that you will cover production, and/or billing, and/or read & sign or services that are normally under their purview. Imagine a world where it’s your name, transcript cover, brand, on all the materials. That’s what we’re talking about here.

Succinctly whatever their cut is, it is for the marketing side of what they’ve done. In this private label example, the reporter is becoming more of a focal point, face, and name attached to the full service.

There is some merit to this idea. Many steno and reporting companies today follow a strict corporate brand strategy where their name is on every transcript, and this is something you see all over the country from McDonald’s to From You Flowers. That said, money is money, business is business, and if you can sell the idea of the private label strategy or an alternative branding strategy, you can take advantage of this novel shortage solution. As a matter of fact, we have seen this strategy before in reverse. For example, if ABC Company asks CBA Company to cover, CBA often goes “as” ABC. This idea would be the company “going as” Reporter Doe.

The only real question is: Would a company agree? And my money is on yes. I truly believe that companies would agree, especially if there was a dialogue or agreement. Maybe the answer would be middle of the road: We want to handle production but you can put all your contact information on the certification. In this country there is literally no limit to what can be in an agreement except that an agreement may not be illegal, so it is a sincere hope that every freelance reporter would read this and maybe come to their own conclusions or come up with their own ideas about being a self-employed person and the advertisement decisions that need to go along with that. It’s a hell of a lot more corporate friendly than my previous suggestion to poach clients, and you can bet that given the option, these companies will choose to work with us.

A Word On Raises

The bottom line of this story is going to be, “you need to ask for a raise.” What was quite common in my New York freelance years was many of us accepted, year after year, what agencies handed out. It is time for us to step out of our court reporting skins and be business people.

There’s something called inflation. The really low level summary of inflation is that as more money is produced the value of existing money decreases, meaning item values go up. That’s why you could live off less money back in the 50s or 60s, and why everything is so expensive now.

The buying power of the money in the bank goes down every year, and every year, the services you provide need to be charged at a higher rate so that you have the same buying power.

Try it for yourself. Get an inflation calculator, type in your very first page rate or salary, the year you started, and the year it is now. A reporter told me that in 1989 they made $2.50. That’s worth $5.11 now. If they aren’t making $5.11, their buying power is shot.

I did it myself. I sat down and said what’s a good starting rate for 2018? I was given $3.25 in 2011. Inflation calculator says that’s worth $3.66 now. I had a few friends who started at $4. That’s worth $4.50 now. But who wants to work for the same exact money every year? No. We want a raise. So what would a raise of 3% a year look like? Year 1, you start at $4.00. By year 6, you should be making $4.60. Look at those numbers again. Just to have the same exact buying power 2011 to now, you need $4.50 a page. To give yourself a $0.10 raise after six years, you need $4.60. Your cost of living is going to go up, and unless you make more money every year, your quality of life is going to go down.

That’s really it. This is my case and my explanation for why we have to start talking about our rates. We have to start informing each other about simple business principles. We need to keep an eye on that inflation rate. We need to really take a close look at what we make on all our services and ask ourselves why our money for our associations, charities, and causes are so tight. We need to admit one thing: You need to ask for a raise.